Le Mepris

While Tarantino carries on his po-mo Western stylings in some cinemas near you, BFI Southbank celebrates the entire oeuvre of original filmic imp Jean Luc Godard (after whose film Bande A Part Tarantino named his production company.)

JLG’s 1963 film Le Mepris **** (Contempt) however, gets a wider release, one the major movies about making movies and one of the most extraordinary beginnings in all cinema.

The opening credits are read out aloud while a small crew and camera tracks towards us on a dolly in a studio lot – we thus see Godard and the cameraman Raoul Coutard shooting their own picture. Then, a camera lovingly pans along a naked Brigitte Bardot in bed (bathed in a filtered glow so she almost looks like Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger) as she asks her lover – and by extension us – “Aimez-vous my ankles? my legs? my buttocks? my back? my breasts…”.

It is a film whose very subject is voyeurism, but not in the Peeping Tom way. It is, says Godard himself – and therefore we shouldn’t take his word for it – about “people who watch each other and judge each other, who are in turn judged and watched by the cinema”.

Bardot, then the most photographed woman in the world, is Camille, the girlfriend of a frustrated playwright Paul (Michel Piccoli). They’re both in Italy at the behest of a muscular American film producer (played by Jack Palance – is this one of Harvey W’s favourite films, I wonder?) who wants to make a film of Homer’s Odyssey. Fritz Lang himself plays the director.

Paul’s self-hatred at taking the screenwriting job leads to Camille having contempt for him too, and their relationship meltdown in a Rome apartment forms a good, claustrophobic part of the film. Echoes here, of one of my favourite re-issues from last year, L’eclipse. As Godard also said: “We made an Antonioni film, but shot it like Hawks or Hitchcock.”

However,  what remains are the scenes in the studios of Cinecitta, with their huge movie posters in the background (everything from Rio Bravo to Rossellini’s Mi Viaggio in Italia) and the scenes in that amazing house in the rocks of Capri and the grimly ineluctable fate of the finale.

Despite Bardot’s tinglingly sexual presence, Godard makes it a harsh, hard film, Le Mepris, teetering between modernity and the ancients, a film about personal decisions and fatal control in work, art and relationships. I prefer Truffaut’s Day for Night as far as New Wave films about film making go, but while Le Mepris is tough to love, it’s impossible not to admire.

Click here to see the brand new trailer.

To find out more about the exhaustive Godard season at BFI Southbank (Jan 1 – March 16), visit – and do catch Godard’s wife and muse Anna Karina’s QnAs there on Jan 16, following screenings of the unmissable Vivre Sa Vie and Bande a Part. My other recommendations and rarities in this season: Sympathy for the Devil, La Chinoise, Le Weekend, Pierrot Le Fou, Film Socialisme, Adieu au Langage.

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